In a puzzling move, a House committee passed a plan to put a proposed constitutional amendment on how state school board members are selected on the ballot in 2016 but declined to advance the actual amendment.
The House Education Committee narrowly passed SB195, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, but failed to move ahead with the required companion legislation SJR5. That conundrum essentially orphans the bill.
Last year a federal judge ruled Utah's method for selecting state school board members was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have been grappling with how to change the system this session.
Millner's bill makes state school board elections partisan for the 2016 election. In that same election, voters would consider a proposed constitutional amendment to make future members of the state school board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. If the constitutional amendment failed, then school board elections would remain partisan going forward.
Millner clearly favors the appointment and confirmation route.
"Look at the top-10 states in education performance," she said. "Nine of those appoint their school board members. We need to strive toward getting the governor, legislature, and school board working together toward the betterment of our schools. Right now, the governor has no authority over education."
SB195 flies directly in the face of public opinion. A UtahPolicy.com survey found 27% of Utahns favor partisan school board members. Just 12% say they want board members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. More Utahns than those two choices combined (56%) say they want non-partisan school board elections.
Millner argues the appointment and confirmation route would make Utah's public education system work better.
"Every year the number of bills dealing with public education outnumber those for higher education by 10-1. That's because we can't get people working together. For example, Idaho's board is appointed and they have 6-8 bills per year on public education. That's because people work together."
Brad Smith, State Superintendent, says Utah doesn't need to do anything about state school board elections this year because the case hasn't been fully adjudicated in court.
"We are hearing this bill because a single federal judge declared our system unconstitutional. The 10th Circuit hasn't had a chance to rule on this yet. There's no reason we have to decide this now."
Liz Zentner, President of the Utah PTA, worries the public would reject the amendment providing for the appointment, which would leave the state with partisan elections.
"We think there's a possibility the public will vote that (the amendment) down. Non-partisan elections are what the people want."
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, is also troubled by the idea of partisan elections because it could disenfranchise independent voters in Utah.
"Almost 40% of voters statewide are independent," she said. "Who do we want our school board to be accountable to? Parents or lobbyists and delegates?"
HB195 is essentially toothless right now since the committee failed to advance the proposed constitutional amendment that accompanies the bill.
Earlier this session the House advanced a bill providing for non-partisan school board members. However, it's uncertain that proposal will have enough support in the Senate.